A thought experiment about identity

by Aryeh Cohen-Wade

In the twelve-alarm, web-wide freak out over “Not A Very P.C. Thing To Say,” Jonathan Chait’s jeremiad against the resurgence of political correctness, his critics all agree on one point: Chait is a white man. Alex Pareene: “So, here is sad white man Jonathan Chait’s essay about the difficulty of being a white man in the second age of ‘political correctness.’” Jessica Valenti: “His willful ignorance about why he (a white, hetero, cisgender man) might not be able to use all the words or claim authority on every single topic…” Joan Walsh: “Chait continues to pick the scab of his suffering over the fact that the every musing of white liberal men (and women, to be fair) about race and politics is no longer welcomed for its contribution to the struggle.” Jia Tolentino: “Punditry in a democracy is…still based on white men who can’t stand their opinions to be read through a lens of race and gender, but perhaps they should get used to it.”

I propose a thought experiment that presents a different lens. In 2011, Chait moved from his longtime perch at The New Republic to New York magazine. However, let’s imagine that this was merely a clever ruse perpetrated by a shadowy neoliberal cabal. Actually, Chait was kidnapped and placed in a Matrix-like gooey cocoon, and is currently being held in suspended animation five hundred feet below the offices of the Brookings Institution. His brain was scanned to build a mechanical simulacrum known as Robo-Chait, a cyborg that has been penning his columns ever since. This automaton looks and acts exactly like the real Chait, parroting his sarcastic prose style and idiosyncratic quirks (e.g., a hatred for all things Ohio). Jonathan Chait did not write a piece arguing against political correctness — Robo-Chait did.

So when Alex Pareene accuses Chait of being a “sad, white man,” he’s wrong; robots don’t have a race or a gender, and, of course, cannot feel emotion (“What is this thing you call…love?”). While built from the thought patterns of a heterosexual, cisgendered, white, able-bodied male, Robo-Chait is just a computer program, an intelligent machine that has written a long piece decrying political correctness.

If we posit that “Not A Very P.C. Thing To Say” wasn’t actually written by a white man, what changes about the piece? Every word and phrase is exactly the same, but the kind of identity-based critique deployed by many on the left is rendered moot. The piece must succeed or fail on its own merits. If we nullify the complaint that Jon Chait is a white man who shouldn’t be writing about this topic, we find that most of his critics lack much of an argument (Pareene’s piece in particular is laughably ad hominem). And while some might want to tell Robo-Chait that it needs to check its techno-privilege, we can run the same thought experiment with a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters, or an anonymously written essay, etc.

In critiquing the anti-Chaitians, I am not proposing a universal principle. Identity does matter to some kinds of speech. Politicians who grow up in poverty speak with more moral weight on the subject of helping the poor; a symposium on affirmative action featuring mostly white men would be foolish; this famous Chris Rock bit would be incredibly offensive coming from a white comedian. But the fact that so many of Chait’s critics see his identity as an automatic strike against him — because he is a white man, his opinions on this topic are disqualified — is very troubling. It goes against the universal values that liberals profess. Moreover, these critics reinforce Chait’s point that identity politics produces an inferior form of debate: when you can’t disprove what someone is saying, attack him or her personally instead. (Is there a German word for “attempting to disprove your opponent’s argument while unwittingly proving it”?)

Chait’s critics also ignore the fact that victims of political correctness are often not white men, but dissenting members of outgroups. Whatever nasty thing you say about Jonathan Chait, he’ll be fine — affluent, well-educated white men usually are. But Chait describes a conservative Muslim college student who came under fire for writing a satirical anti-P.C. article; hooded assailants defaced his dorm-room door, and he lost his spot on the student newspaper. Chait notes that a Facebook group started by female journalists for casual conversation and networking devolved into “bitter identity-politics recriminations, endlessly litigating the fraught requirements of p.c. discourse”; many members quit to escape the vicious backbiting. If you belong to a minority group and don’t toe the party line, you are likely to be “called out,” which means that internal dissenters will stay silent. (A parallel dynamic plays out on the right, which is why it has taken six years for conservative writers to turn against Sarah Palin.) A political movement based on shutting down debate and expelling heretics will never thrive.

Let’s put aside the fact that Jonathan Chait is a white man. If you have a problem with his ideas, make your case on the merits. Robo-Chait wouldn’t know what love is, but, in its coldly rational heart, it would be grateful.